BRADENTON, Fla. — Like other cities dealing with congestion, Atlanta has been searching for ways to move people around downtown without building new roads or adding more vehicles.
Now a nearly $48 million capital grant afforded by the federal stimulus law will jump-start work on the first phase of a long-planned, 9.7-mile electric streetcar transit system estimated to cost $900 million.
The grant from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Act, or TIGER II, that Atlanta received last week will go toward the $70 million cost of building the first 2.62 miles of the streetcar system, which is designed to connect businesses downtown and their patrons, tourists, and conventioneers with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. MARTA is managing the streetcar design, construction, and related start-up activities.
For the local funding to support the project, the City Council and the nonprofit Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, better known as Central Atlanta Progress Inc., have authorized $16 million of bonds to support the capital expenses of the first phase. Other funds have been designated for operations and maintenance.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood presented the stimulus funding check last week to Mayor Kasim Reed.
Reed said the project would create 930 jobs during the construction phase and more than 5,600 jobs over the next 20 years.
The city hopes to release a request for proposals in November seeking a firm or consortium to enter a contract to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the first phase, according to Atlanta deputy chief operating officer Luz Borrero.
While some people have been critical of such projects, the use of streetcars, trolleys, and other smaller-scale, street-level shuttle systems has become popular in many areas of the country as a way to improve circulation.
In preparing for the design of Atlanta’s streetcar, officials visited Charlotte, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City to see their light-rail transit systems and vehicles, according to Central Atlanta Progress spokeswoman Sara Milton.
While the first phase is but a small portion of the overall streetcar project, the initial route was carefully chosen to link with the city’s BeltLine redevelopment effort and provide “connectivity to the core of the city,” Milton said.
“It might open future funding opportunities that might not be available if no hard infrastructure connectivity is available to the central part of the city,” she said.
The BeltLine, selected as the Best 2009 Bond Deal by the Council of Development Finance Agencies, is a 22-mile pedestrian-friendly rail system and community redevelopment plan designed to bring 1,300 acres of new green space, 33 miles of multi-use trails, $20 billion of new economic development, and 30,000 new jobs to underdeveloped and aged areas around the city’s inner core.
The streetcar’s first phase will provide riders with east-west connectivity to attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coke to the city’s historic district, which is already experiencing revitalization with new restaurants and nightlife, Milton said.
While a streetcar project has been studied for years, getting to the funding and construction stage has not been easy.
Atlanta applied for a $300 million federal grant in the first round of TIGER funding early this year to support the entire 9.7-mile-long streetcar system.
But while three streetcar systems in the country won grants in the first round, Atlanta’s project was not among them.
That forced the city to regroup and downsize its application and the scope of the project, Borrero said.
For the TIGER II application process, the city created a smaller, first phase of the streetcar system and requested a grant of $56.15 million toward the overall $72.1 million cost. Even after requesting the smaller grant, Borrero said federal officials asked the city to downsize its request slightly and increase the local match.
“We upped the local match by $5.6 million,” she said. “The reason why we did this is because we knew and understood there was a significant amount of competition nationwide for this funding and the more skin in the game we had [as well as] the ability to demonstrate to the federal government that we were absolutely committed to this project locally, the more likely we were to obtain the funding.”
While waiting for the TIGER II grant announcement, the City Council this summer created the Atlanta Urban Redevelopment Agency to sell its $22.7 million allocation of recovery zone economic development bonds. Of that, $10 million is earmarked for the streetcar project but the amount can be adjusted by the council.
Because of the smaller TIGER II grant award, Borrero said the local match amount still must be tweaked and that might include an increase in the bonding amount. The Council still needs to take action on the funding plan so the bonds can be sold before the RZED authorization expires at the end of the year.
“I’m very confident that it can be done before the end of the year,” she said.
The council already has selected Citi and Terminus Securities LLC to sell the bonds. Hunton & Williams LLP and the Law Offices of Greg Evans will be co-bond counsel. Greenberg Traurig LLP and Riddle and Schwartz LLC will be co-disclosure counsel. A sale date has not been released.
The other component of the streetcar project is being supported by the private nonprofit Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which covers four square miles in downtown where property owners tax themselves a millage rate to fund the district’s activities.
Those activities include cleaning and revitalizing streets and sidewalks, removing graffiti, and assisting people who are lost or have vehicle problems, among others.
ADID directors have committed $20 million over 20 years toward the streetcar, including authorization for the sale of $6 million of bonds and $4 million for operations and maintenance. Along with fare and advertising revenues, the city is dedicating up to $1 million over 20 years from a car rental and hotel tax for operations and maintenance.
Borrero said several firms have approached the city about bidding on the first phase. After a developer is chosen for the first phase, officials will begin work on the remaining phases.
Other cities in the Southeast are working on new or expanded streetcar projects.
New Orleans was among the cities that received funding from the first round of TIGER grants announced in February. With the $45 million grant, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority is building a 1.5-mile streetcar extension serving the Union Passenger Terminal train station and the Louisiana Superdome.
In late September, the NORTA sold $75 million of tax-exempt sales tax bonds to support the financing of two other streetcar projects. One of the bond-financed lines will provide a four-mile-long extension the current three-line system into the French Quarter. The second phase is a 1.8-mile stretch that will complete a connection between the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and existing streetcar lines.
NORTA’s bonds priced Sept. 24 with maturities from 2011 to 2030 and yields ranging from 1% with a 2% coupon in 2011, to 3.41% with a 5% coupon in 2020 to 4.23% with a 5% coupon in 2030. The bond were rated Aa3 by Moody’s Investors Service and AAA by Standard & Poor’s.